Weekend Forecast for March 1-3, 2002

By David Mumpower

Did you know over 11,000 people are injured every year trying out new sexual positions?

Why do I mention this in a box office forecast? Because it punctuates just how distinct the marketing campaign for one of this week's new releases has been. Without question, 40 Days and 40 Nights has been the most controversial film idea to come down the pike in a very long time. Some cynics maintain it's a rip-off that simply takes the infamous Seinfeld gag of The Bet ("Are you still master of your domain?") and extends it from a half hour sitcom to a 95-minute feature. Others (correctly) profess that the Big Idea film concept is predicated upon celibacy, a way of life for many. They go on to point out that none of the followers of this doctrine ever got a movie made about them because they don't look like someone who could star in Pearl Harbor. They fail to see what the big deal is here and resent the implication of uniqueness. At the risk of gaining the ire of these angry virgins (and honestly, you never want to get on the bad side of anyone with copious amounts of pent up sexual energy because they tend to have a lot of spare aggression), I fall into the final category of people who cannot wait to see the film. Why?

The marketing of 40 Days and 40 Nights is quite simply the best I have ever seen.

Honestly, how many official movie websites have you seen link to obscure facts about sexuality such as the one at the top of this column? The people running the 40 Days and 40 Nights ad campaign understand that this concept is fun and fluffy. It should be treated with a light (yet deft) touch rather than in the heavy-handed fashion of other recent would-be teen comedies such as Slackers and Orange County. The willingness of the marketing to focus on the goofy aspect of someone consciously choosing to abstain from sex yet being taunted by his desires at each turn is something I applaud whole-heartedly. There are commercials which focus simply on the looks our hero gets from women who love a challenge or who have placed wagers on "breaking" him. There are spots that show his own priest mercilessly scoffing at him for the mere suggestion that he could pull it off. There are shots of women xeroxing X-rated body parts and kissing each other passionately as the awkward protagonist stacks up items over his crotch to hide his shame/pride (depending on whether you like Josh or not) and hold on to his dream of 40 days of celibacy. And finally, yes, there is a trailer that shows an oversexed yet determined man instinctively copping a feel from a bottle of pancake syrup crafted in the shape of an older woman. How's that for gutsy?

Does this mean that I think the movie will be great? Of course not. All of us who are movie goers have learned many times over that a hot trailer will just as often lead to Planet of the Apes as it will to Rush Hour 2 but it does heighten my interest to a level I haven't felt for quite some time. Here's hoping that 40 Days and 40 Nights is a movie that is at least half as charming as the marketing for it is. Still, even if it doesn't attain that level of success, I tip my hat and raise my glass to Miramax for making commercials that were entertaining enough to keep me from grabbing the remote. You made this movie a must-see opening day event for me and while that's supposed to be your job, no ad campaign has ever been so successful at it for me personally. Take a bow.

Now let's get down to the analysis.

40 Days and 40 Nights
Release Date: March 1, 2002
Official Web Site
Genre: Romantic Comedy/Teen Sex Comedy
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: Miramax

Main Cast:
Josh Hartnett
Shannyn Sossamon
Monet Mazur
Maggie Gyllenhaal
Emmanuelle Vaugier
Keegan Connor Tracy
Vinessa Shaw
Terry Chen
Paulo Costanzo
Mary Gross

The good news: Hot actors in the midst of soaring rises in popularity star in a clever concept that has been marketed brilliantly.

The bad news: R rating keeps out some of the very audience most attracted to Josh. Also, he has not carried a hit film on his own as of yet. O was the closest and he only had third billing in it. Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down succeeded at the box office independent of his presence.

Josh Hartnett has apparently decided to live in the shadow of O. In his last non-military role, that meant being filled with jealous hatred for a basketball player named Odin. In his latest effort, he is obsessed with a different sort of Big O, one the French describe as the little death. In an attempt to prove to his friends and himself that he can follow through on a goal, Hartnett's Matt Sullivan boldly proclaims that he will go without any form of sexual gratification throughout the 40 days of Lent. What he hasn't counted upon is the 40 nights of women attempting to break down his will and seduce him into their beds. He also hasn't considered just how hormonal the male body is at that age. Those of us who are honest about our sex drives would admit that such a feat is the sexual equivalent of climbing Mount Everest and swimming the English Channel over a long weekend.

Making the task even more difficult is that during the course of his attempt, he stumbles upon the most beautiful woman he has ever seen as she lights up a laundromat with her easy going charm. The woman in question is Erica, who is played by Angelina Jolie look-alike Shannyn Sossamon. She already managed to make the generic A Knight's Tale surprisingly watchable and here she is given the opportunity to stand up and be noticed as a worthy equal to Hartnett. What works nicely about this casting is that her Audrey Hepburn-esque effervescence should be a wonderful counterbalance to Josh's naturally withdrawn state as an actor. His lack of ego is in direct opposition to the Hollywood actor persona of needing to be the focus of every scene but this conscious style of inertia creates difficulty when surrounding cast members do not compensate in kind. Sossamon is presented in the ad campaigns as an ethereal goddess, a nymph that no man could resist.

In fact, the two of them comprise the sexiest romantic comedy duo in theaters since Notting Hill (well, America's Sweethearts if you just consider the actors and not the film itself). To drive home the point of how hot these two stars are, a perfunctory check of some tracking tools at yahoo and IMDb pro reveals the following: Josh Hartnett is the second highest rated actor search at yahoo, currently trailing only Aaliyah. At IMDb, he is considered the second most popular star under 25, currently trailing only Shane West. Under this same ranking system, Sossamon is THE most popular actor to have appeared in fewer than five films. I hope the casting director received a raise for the coup of bringing these two together at such a perfect time. Anyway, the point here is that these are two lovable people cast together in a movie that is at heart as romantic an ideal as there is. 40 Days and 40 Nights is about meeting the right person at the wrong time. It bears noting that the film is based upon real-life circumstances of the screenwriter, Rob Perez.

The film's box office prospects are rather rosy on the whole. The trend in 2002 has been for almost every new product to find at least some niche in the marketplace. Obviously, there have been a couple of films that simply couldn't succeed in the marketplace such as Slackers, Impostor and Birthday Girl but if we look at the chart for 2002 to date, we see a lot of films opening into double digits. Exactly two thirds of them, to be precise.

<% sqlstr = "SELECT * FROM box WHERE" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Black Hawk Down%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Snow Dogs%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%John Q%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Queen of the%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Crossroads%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Mothman Prophecies%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Count of Monte Cristo%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Walk To Remember%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Beautiful Mind%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Return To Neverland%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Collateral Damage%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Orange County%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Big Fat Liar%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Dragonfly%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Rollerball%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Hart''s War%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Super Troopers%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Kung Pow%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Birthday Girl%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Impostor%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Slackers%'" sqlstr = sqlstr + " ORDER BY open DESC" max = 100 header = "Major 2002 Releases To Date" tstyle = "release" skin = "bop" x = Drawtable(sqlstr,max,header,tstyle,skin) %>

You will note that many of the listings above such as Crossroads, A Walk To Remember, Queen of the Damned, Big Fat Liar and Orange County are specifically targeted at the same general demographic as 40 Days and 40 Nights. None of them looked this entertaining nor were marketed this well yet all opened to double digits. With a better concept, hotter leads (in both meanings of the word) and a wonderful set of commercials driving it, I expect this movie to be a strong breakout with a weekend tally of $18.2 million from 2,225 venues.

Here is some miscellaneous information about the rest of the cast (aka Where the hell do I know them from? This is going to drive me nuts.). First and foremost, Terry Chen stole several scenes as the sexy-voiced Ben Fong-Torres in Almost Famous. Paulo Costanzo was the shameless loafer and weedhead Rubin in Road Trip and Alexander Cabot III in Josie and the Pussycats (not that he's type cast in teen flicks or anything). Vinessa Shaw will never escape the indignity of playing Agent Kate Russo in Corky Romano alongside that creepy little guy who Saturday Night Live inexplicably hasn't fired yet. Maggie Gyllenhaal played the sister to her real life brother Jake Gyllenhaal (Bubble Boy) in Donnie Darko. If you don't know who she is yet, give it a little while. Her performance as a sexually submissive employee of James Spader in a film named Secretary was all the rage at Sundance 2002. Finally, Dylan Neal will be forever known as the jerk older brother of Pacey on Dawson's Creek.

We Were Soldiers
Release Date: March 1, 2002
Official Web Site
Genre: Action/Drama/War
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: Paramount

Main Cast:
Mel Gibson
Madeleine Stowe
Sam Elliott
Greg Kinnear
Chris Klein
Kerri Russell
Barry Pepper
Mark Blucas
Jsu Garcia
Edwin Morrow
Mike White
Keith Szarabajka
Dylan Walsh

The good news: That Mel Gibson fellow has a chance to really make a name for himself in Hollywood.

The bad news: Didn't Bruce Willis just star in this film last week? Oh and if that doesn't scare you off, how about these two words: co-starring Felicity.

Much to the chagrin of Simpsons fans everywhere, Mel Gibson passed on a chance to re-make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in order to follow in the still fresh footprints of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Josh Hartnett by doing a movie about war and/or terrorism. The huge concern you already clearly see is that this is the fourth film of its style in 2002 and we're only in week nine. The golden rule of cinema in instances such as this one where a similar product is released very soon after another one like it is that if you go last, you'd better not suck. The blockbuster successes of Armageddon and Monsters, Inc. as they followed in the footsteps of Deep Impact and Shrek emphatically demonstrate that a film of similar concept will find its audience if it is a quality product. The performance of Hart's War is a cautionary tale about what happens if your product looks middling and it comes out after another movie in the same genre (war drama) as good as Black Hawk Down. Consumers will not accept inferior products this soon after seeing superior ones so the last film on the scene generally takes a savage hit at the box office. Obviously, the question here is simple. Does We Were Soldiers appear to be a quality product?

On the surface, there are several positive notes for We Were Soldiers. The film re-teams the Braveheart combination of writer Randall Wallace and director/star Mel Gibson. In this new production, Wallace is the one handling the direction. Also, this title is produced by Joe Roth's Revolution Studios and their initial job of getting strong openings for their productions has been most impressive. Out of the listings below, only The One was unprofitable relative to budget (and even it opened very well). Revolution marketing is the industry standard right now.

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The story is based on real life events from the Vietnam War in 1965. A colony of 450 highly skilled US military troops found themselves engaged on all sides by North Vietnamese soldiers who outnumbered them by a five to one ratio. The conflict between the troops was the first extended battle of the Vietnam War and set the tone for the brutal, senseless nature of it. Amazingly, the film will only show the events of the first four days of a skirmish that went on for weeks. As with Black Hawk Down, the attempt is to effectively demonstrate the eternal nature of a few hours of sustained fighting. What makes this title different is that there will be a secondary plot involving the family members left behind by the soldiers. Madeleine Stowe portrays Gibson's wife and a mother of five. She is stranded in Ft. Benning and becomes the de facto leader of the other wives who are in similar predicaments with their soldier husbands. With that responsibility comes the unenviable task of informing some of her new friends that they are now widowed.

As you can see, We Were Soldiers will not be any easier to watch than Black Hawk Down so it again faces the difficulties of other recent war efforts. North American audiences have been through a lot in the past six months and struggle with the concept of going to their escapist realm of the cineplex to watch a challenging film about the horrors of war. Since BHD crossed the $100 million barrier this weekend and opened to a very strong $33.6 million, we know that this is not an impossible sell. We also know from the $8.9 million opening of Hart's War that it is not an easy one either and with each new product of a similar nature's arrival, the sell becomes harder.

On the plus side, few actors in Hollywood have track records as solid as Road Warrior Mel's as we can see from the chart below. On the negative side, his last role of a similar variety in The Patriot led to one of his most disappointing box office performances of the last decade relative to the lofty expectations of summer box office prognosticators who had it pegged as a $175 million+ blockbuster.

<% sqlstr = "SELECT * FROM box WHERE" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Maverick%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Chicken Run%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Patriot, The%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Lethal Weapon%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Ransom%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Braveheart%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Conspiracy Theory%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%Payback%' OR" sqlstr = sqlstr + " movie like '%What Women Want%'" sqlstr = sqlstr + " ORDER BY open DESC" max = 100 header = "Mel Gibson's Box Office Track Record" tstyle = "release" skin = "bop" x = Drawtable(sqlstr,max,header,tstyle,skin) %>

In short, We Were Soldiers is very difficult to get a handle on because the debits and credits columns appear nearly equal. One trend that is hard to ignore is that Mel always seems to find a way to open a film to $20+ million. While I don't forecast We Were Soldiers is going to be as big a success as Black Hawk Down, I do believe we may reasonably expect an opening in the range of $20.3 million this weekend from 3,143 venues.